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Struggle for India


THE struggle for India goes on -- as it has almost without pause for 4,000 years.

Time and again the struggle has changed the history of the world, causing great empires to rise and fall in Asia and Europe.

And over the millennia it has touched the lives of billions of people everywhere -- particularly their minds and most deep beliefs.

India is where Hinduism and Buddhism were born and the Sikh religion came to be, where Islam flourished, where Christianity established an Eastern outpost that became part of the growth of the West.

Muslim emperors, and then British generals, came to seize the real crown jewels of India -- trade, labor, markets, control of the passages between East and West. Without India neither Islam nor the British Empire might have grown to great wealth and command.

Then came a new kind of struggle for India. Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru and the Indian freedom movement won independence almost without a shot -- armed with idealism and a talent for hard bargaining.

That began the great adventure. In 1947 India became the only large newly freed nation to reach for economic decency by building a democratic, secular, pluralistic state.

Now that part of the struggle for India is rising in intensity. Its outcome will be felt in the world as surely as were other great events in the struggle for India.

Hindu nationalists are growing in strength.

They want to establish Hinduism as the only heritage and destiny of India and bring under a Hindu nationalist umbrella the 110 million Muslims who live among India's 730 million Hindus.

The Hindus' destruction of a Muslim mosque touched off riots around the country and a month later the anti-Muslim pogrom in Bombay.

Last Thursday, serious trouble flared again as Prime Minister Rao stuffed New Delhi with troops to block a monster rally by a collection of nationalist parties and street gangs.

India knows that although Muslims are victims, this is a struggle between nationalist Hindus and those Hindus who believe that religious nationalism is the opposite of the vision of the 1947 independence movement -- a democratic society in which all religions would flourish but none would dominate.

Mr. Rao's wise decision to enforce a ban on the rally showed Muslims at last that the government would protect them.

But he seems totally unable to arouse the passionate idealism of the independence movement, and does not much try.

In some important part the great adventure endures -- a democracy, flawed but real, is fighting the religious fundamentalism that other nations have embraced. But the ruling Congress Party, once India's independence movement, is now a back room where politicians haggle for jobs and candidacies.

People also blame corruption for loss of faith -- bribery to get a seat on the train or a seat in Parliament. A good American district attorney would probably arrest the whole government.

Violence is an everyday political weapon. No self-respecting politician travels without backup cars filled with bodyguards. Often it is hard to find the moral difference between political and police terrorism.

But no, this is not the end of India, as proclaimed by foreigners and bewept by Indian intellectuals every few years. Democracy's strength here is that it is the only practical way for Hindus and Muslims to live together instead of killing each other.

But the future will be decided by what the Hindu and Muslim democrats in India do to save the democracy they inherited.

In this capital, my home and journalistic post for four years in the Nehru era, the friends of religious and political liberty have not pulled themselves out of the shock of nationalism's rise.

Mostly, they clutch their heads. That is not known to have stopped bigoted nationalism ever. I am told that in other cities, particularly Bombay, the enemies of fanaticism are out working in the streets.

The other day, at the home of the Sikh writer Kushwant Singh, I saw something nailed to the door -- a mezuza.

And in an Indian Muslim diplomat's home I saw a statue of the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesh, and a large painting of the Last Supper.

For a country like that, the great adventure can't be all over, it can't be.

A. M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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